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Syndicalism, its cause and cure.

Syndicalism and the General Strike - by Arthur D. Lewis. (London; T. Fisher Unwin. Price 7s 6d)

As the only party in Great Britain that has taken up a definite and consistent attitude towards Anarchism in all its forms, it is meet that we should have something to say on the latest work on Syndicalism that has been published.

We have adopted a frankly hostile policy to this latest importation for the simple reason that we are a Socialist party. The sorry plight of those so-called Socialist bodies like the B. S. P. and the I. L. P. is a natural result of their lack of principles based on a correct knowledge of the position of our class. Inside the former body there is a heated controversy, both among the “leaders” and the rank and file, as to whether Syndicalism is the road for the workers to travel. The curious position of the I. L.P. is shown by their advocacy of the General Strike at the International Labour Congress as a weapon against war!

The cause of Syndicalism lies in the history of these and similar parties. In the Blachford section they have literally bred Syndicalism by their disgusting election tricks, so often exposed in these pages. Their former members, now Syndicalists, point to the vote-hunting, compromising campaigns of Bethnal green and Northampton, along with others, as showing the failure and danger of political action. The Independent Labour Party, too, has so treacherously played the part of advance agents of the Liberal party that from political opportunism their supporters right-about-turn to denounce political action altogether  – not that they understand Syndicalism any more than its leading votaries, but believing it to be anti-political, they seek shelter beneath its slogans and formulas.

Our statement of the cause of Syndicalism is supporter by the Syndicalist author of the book under review, who states (p. 187) that: -

“There are practically only one or two Syndicalists in England, but discontent with the degree of success obtained through the Parliamentary Labour Party has led to a general return to trade unionism and strikes as a means of fighting the employers . . . The belief that at least one member of the party bargains with the Liberal Government with a view to his personal advantage; the moderation of its words in Parliament compared with its words on the platform; the incapacity of many members of it, who are only dolls in the hands of Mr. Ramsay MacDonald; the acceptance by certain of its members of paid posts given by the Liberals; and its love of Puritanism, have all helped to cause a feeling of disappointment and disillusionment in many who once trusted and believed in it.”

That, then, is the cause of the spread of Syndicalism. It is clearly shown by this that Syndicalism thrives on ignorance. Only mis-educated, non Socialist workers would ever trust the Labour Party, would ever expect them to look after the toilers’ interests; and when the failure of their political inaction is realised, it is not the political method itself that has been found wanting, but it is the lack of sound knowledge on the workers’ part that is demonstrated. Because the political machine has been used in a capitalist direction the Syndicalist and his dupes proclaim the failure of politics!

The present book consists chiefly of quotations from the works of the Syndicalist leaders of to-day throughout Europe, and the author ventures his opinions very little. When he does so, he shows not only that he does not understand Syndicalism, but that he understands Socialism still less. In the preface he declares Socialism to mean that “huge State monopolies are to be formed in all industries, and that these will be controlled by a few very powerful officials at Westminster”.

This is typical of the misrepresentation that the Syndicalists feed their followers on. If Mr. Lewis would consult what he calls an “orthodox” Socialist, say Frederick Engels, he would find that Socialism rises upon the ashes of the State, for when Socialism comes the day of the State has closed for ever.

Though the title of the work is Syndicalism and the General Strike, only one chapter is devoted wholly to the latter question. The chief part deals with the theory of Syndicalism and Syndicalists.

Our author tells us that “the Syndicalist likes poor unions best – riches bring caution: he likes low weekly dues and small benefits”. Rather we would say, the average Syndicalist likes no dues and many benefits. We are promised much melodrama and but little organisation and education by his statement that: “The great weapon of the workers against their masters is disorder”. And one phase is described as “sabôtage or the destruction of property, intimidation of masters, sitting in factories with folded arms so no blacklegs can take your places, leaving work at an hour earlier than the masters want, telling the truth to customers: all these are means by which the masters can be made to yield”.

What they are to be made to yield by these means we are not told. But anyone can realise that while these things may prove aggravating to the isolated employer, and make him more bitter against the music-hall revolutionists, yet if this kind of thing was general, all the employers being on the same footing, they would feel its effects very little.

But to keep this conduct up the workers would need the power, not merely to personate George Washington, but to take control of the entire means of life; not to leave at an earlier hour than the masters desire, but to leave masters altogether. The crude notions of these folk are brought forward in the idea of “sitting with folded arms” while the masters want food, clothing, etc. for their daily needs. Sabotage, like all Syndicalist methods, is born of the want of sound knowledge and strong organisation.

Despite the fact that the author declares that the General Confederation of Labour in France “contains both a reformist and a revolutionary section”, and that the latter is “the minority of a minority of a minority – only some of the members of the C. G. T. being revolutionists and the C. G. T. itself only representing a minority of the unions” – despite that, however, the Anarchists miscalled revolutionists have a governing influence in the organisation, and have made its actions both comedies and tragedies.

They don’t believe in democracy. As the leading French Syndicalist, Emile Pouget, says in the work quoted – “The Syndicalist” – “Syndicalism and democracy are the two opposite poles which exclude and neutralise each other . . . This is because democracy is a social superfluity, a parasitic and external excrescence, while Syndicalism is a logical manifestation of the growth of life”, etc. Another French leader, M. Pierrot, is quoted as saying in “Syndicalism and Revolution” : “It is better to have an active group who know how to carry the masses and turn them in the right direction by their words and actions” . “The Syndicalist”, says our author “has contempt for the vulgar idea of democracy: the inert, unconscious mass is not to be taken into account when the minority wishes to act so as to benefit it”.

That is the key note. The 'intellectual' few are to dominate the many. Not democracy but autocracy and dictatorship. The day of  a revolution carried out on these lines would also be the day of counter-revolution, the day of disaster, of drilled, unthinking masses being driven to the New Jerusalem. The day of revolution would but be the prelude to the long, black night of apathy and despair.
The Socialist Party, however, clings fast to democracy in organisation and in action. It knows that the real, reliable movement can only be built up with an alert, awakened, interested working class. That alone can bring about emancipation -- not a few leaders hypnotising an ignorant rank and file.

Syndicalism means but a change of leaders. As Gaylord Wilshire’s (the wealthy Syndicalist) magazine declares (November 1912): “The new movement calls for new leaders”. And again: “The new conditions must bring forth a new type of leader, powerful, inspiring, and heroic”. Leadership, not a live membership doing their own work in their own way, that is the ideal. Mr. Lewis points out that unions with small funds are wanted, for, says he, “where funds are large the workers are made to vote for or against a strike”, thus showing that the Syndicalist objects to the will of the worker being expressed and acted upon.

“Syndicalism has an immediate programme. It would have the unions look to it that there are meeting places for working men, where there will be lectures, baths, and all that helps them to learn how to take control of production and consumption; also the officials, with professional help, should get for the workers their legal rights and place medical and legal advice at their disposal.”

So anxious are they about reforms that they even worry about legal rights. Fancy hungering after the rights conferred by lawyers and by Parliament! But it is not surprising, for above all else the Syndicalists are reformers. Without economic knowledge or political insight, what else could they be? The English Syndicalist, Mr. Tom Mann declares (“A Twofold Warning”) that poverty can be abolished under capitalism, and he also says: “I contend that reducing the working hours provides a solution for the problem of unemployment, and it matters not what system obtains”. With this rot they make converts among the ignorant, yet any tyro in economics could prove to him that the reserve army of labour is the corner-stone of capitalism, and that the shortening of hours doesn’t mean the lessening of the product of the same number of men. The Chief Inspector of Mines just reports that in spite of the Eight Hours Day Bill, and the strikes last year, over seven million tons more coal were produced than in 1912, and on the average every miner’s output increased three tons. This is typical of the whole industrial world.

Syndicalists claim great things for their strikes and sabotage. Something now! “The use of trade union labels is regarded as an instance of direct action”. The free advertisement of particular employers! Further we are told that by sabotage “bread has been made inedible but not injurious” – a kind of general “hunger strike” forced upon the working class.

But the sad story of Spanish, French and Italian strikes and sabotage has somewhat dimmed the picture. Yvetot, the chief of the C. G. T., in his ABC of Syndicalism, confesses that “the principle obstacle to a revolution is the army . . . When the Government does not use the army to replace strikers, it makes soldiers into massacrers of workmen”. What, then, is the use of the General Strike? What can it do against the army? As Yvetot says, the army massacres the strikers. In Italy, we are told (p. 104): “A general strike of railway workers was attempted in 1905 as a protest against a new attempt to introduce the (strike smashing) law; it failed and the law was passed. Men were shot down by the soldiers in 1907 and there was a renewal of a wide-spread strike. The strikers were defeated, and it was said that 20,000 men, or one third of all the men on the railways, were punished, either by imprisonment, discharge from the service, fines, or degradation of rank.”

Arturo Labriolo, the leading Italian Syndicalist, shows the similarity between Syndicalism and capitalism. He says: “You can imagine that a Syndicat for a certain trade could contain all the workers in a single branch of industry, could contract on uniform conditions with all the capitalists on behalf of these workers, and would form a kind of common treasury of all the profits, to be distributed according to a rule of exalted justice to all its members  . . . This process could go further. It can be imagined that at a certain point of its development the workers’ union might hire the capital of the capitalists for a fixed return and then use it co-operatively, either working in one mass or constructing so many separate co-operative bodies each having separate and distinct accounts.”

And he goes on: “Syndicates, as organisms opposed to monopoly, and therefore open to all, would enthusiastically receive the capitalists of yesterday become the companions of to-day, and would make use of their indisputable directive and administrative ability.”

Before leaving the General Strike theory it is useful to note the words of Mr. Ben Tillett, quoted in the book. Speaking after the 1911 Transport strike was over he said (Glasgow, 11.2.12): “A  week before the strike a Cabinet Minister pleaded with me in a tearful voice to stop the strike. Of course, this pleasing was unheeded until the men got what they wanted”.

Yet within six months of that speech the transport workers were fighting fir the very demands they had “won” the year before! And what a cruel comment was the suffering of that historic defeat on the “efficacy of the strike” idea!

The general strike of miners and other strikes in England bring home the lessons of the Socialist. Whilst the strike, local or industrial, may effect improvement for the time, slavery remains. Whilst the threat of a general strike may induce concessions, it cannot bring a solution. The best results of economic unity can only be effected by class-conscious toilers who recognise the need for class action, class union, for working class ends; who realise that, as the road to emancipation lies in control of political power, political action is a vital necessity.

The cure for Syndicalism is education in the Socialist principles and policy. There is no substitute for a Socialist working class seeking its salvation through the political struggle. When the toilers understand Socialism they will have no room in their minds for the sophisms and fallacies of Syndicalism.

(Socialist Standard, December 1912)